First published back in August of 1996, US author Poppy Z Brite’s third full-length novel to be published was the shockingly gore-drenched tale entitled ‘Exquisite Corpse’.
Locked away in his prison cell, convicted serial killer Andrew Compton is sick to death of his forced incarceration. He needs to get back out onto the streets and doing what he does best – ensnaring and killing his victims. Imprisoned for the horrific torture and murder of twenty-three young men over a span of ten years, Compton knows that there is no chance in hell that he’ll ever be lawfully let out of prison. Therefore drastic times lead to drastic measures. And so in a trance like state, Compton manages to exit his physical body for a prolonged period of time, leaving behind an unresponsive shell that resembles that of lifeless corpse.
When his supposedly dead body is whisked out of the prison, Compton re-enters his body and gets to work sorting out his departure. After killing two autopsy technicians and escaping from the British prison, Compton flees to Louisiana using stolen credit cards and identification. The world is suddenly his playing field once again. Ripe with potential victims for his sadist pleasure are everywhere.
Meanwhile, Jay Bryne has been prowling the bars in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the search for more young men to seduce, torture and ultimately kill. Bryne’s inherited wealth has made his devious crimes that much easier to orchestrate. Luring the young gay men back to his apartment under the pretext of photographing them, Bryne gets them just where he wants them before he commences his torture and murder, followed by bouts of cannibalism and fiendish necrophilia.
And here, in the grimy streets of New Orleans, Compton and Bryne’s paths quickly cross. Their joint passion for the art of murder uniting them. And now they have their eyes set on one young man in particular. A young Vietnamese-American runaway named Tran Vinh who was thrown out of his family home by his unforgiving father for being homosexual. After splitting with his ex-lover, the WHIV pirate radio star Luke Ransom (aka Lush Rimbaud), Tran finds himself taken in by Bryne’s deliberate charm.
But Tran is a local boy. And that makes him a difficult one to kill and then get away with it. Bryne knows that this should make the young gay man off limits. But to his and Compton’s eyes, Tran has become their perfect victim. And together, they will find a way to ensnare the runaway and then delight in his slow and painful demise.
However, Luke Ransom has not given up on Tran. Utterly consumed by the loss of the young ex-lover, Ransom will do anything to get him back. But his time is running out. He is slowly dying of AIDS. The unavoidable shadow of death that is constantly looming over the radio personality, pushing him to take drastic actions. Time is sliding away. And as it does, the shadow of death is gradually culminating around Trad Vinh...
First off, I need to say that this is a pretty strong read. Brite has left behind much of the gothic malarkey that has been so utterly (and annoyingly) prevalent in the likes of ‘Lost Souls’ (1992) and ‘Drawing Blood’ (1993), and flung herself headfirst into a novel of unrelenting misery and impactful horror.
The constant threat of death is by far and away the main thrust of the tale. Whether death comes in the form of one of the two serial killers (Andrew Compton or Jay Bryne) or the drawn out tortures of AIDS, the ever-present lurking figure of Death plays a vital and forceful role in the entire plot of the tale.
The novel is an interestingly structured affair, with the Andrew Compton storyline told in the first person perspective, whilst the other three parallel running storylines (Jay Bryne’s, Trad Vinh’s and Luke Ransom’s) are each told in the standard third person perspective.
Having Compton’s storyline told from behind his psychotically disturbing eyes allows Brite to really explore the horrific and cold nature of this serial killer at work. Blatantly based on the real life serial killer Dennis Nilsen, Compton’s cold and callous approach to seduction, torture and murder is that much more impactful for the unnerving behind-his-eyes telling of these heinous actions.
Jay Bryne’s murderous persuasions (clearly modelled on that of Jeffrey Dahmer) up the ante in regards to the viciousness of the torture and post-death antics (dismemberment, cannibalism and necrophilia). However, being delivered in the third person perspective still does not have the same sledgehammer-to-the-face quality that the Andrew Compton storyline delivers.
The violence utilised within the novel only really appears in any particularly dominating quantity and depth within the first and last quarters of the tale. The main midsection of the novel is (in reflection quite surprisingly) without any great deal of violence or forceful bloodshed. What we have instead is an utterly tragic love story, which becomes entangled in a downward spiral of misery pretty much from the word go. The violence and guttural gore isn’t needed or indeed noticeably missed all that much during this central section of the tale. By this stage the reader is well-and-truly caught up in the vicious and destructive web of tragedy that is the main plotline, and the story is simply propelled along by the decaying character interaction that brings the story to that final and so very pivotal point on its approach to the tale’s conclusion.
Having no real easy-to-identify-with protagonist does make the novel a strangely bleak read, with the reader feeling a little unattached from the antics. Our gritty antagonists (Compton & Bryne) are similarly out at a limb, being a little too charming and roguishly likeable for the reader to feel entirely comfortable with. Tran is edging toward irritating with his foolishly naive and misguided sense of right and wrong. Indeed, the more foolhardy mistakes that the young runaway makes, the more the reader feels that the ordeal he is blindly heading towards is his just deserts.
But returning once again to the violence and gore, it has to be said that Brite’s ‘Exquisite Corpse’ quite literally wallows in the visceral grotesqueness of it all, whilst unleashing a fury of jaw-shatteringly brutal scenes of violence, mutilation, torture, necrophilia, cannibalism and horrific murder. Like with the latter portion of Dennis Cooper’s ‘Frisk’ (1991), expect no holding back here - its ‘in for the kill’ each and every time. Brite isn’t afraid to delve into the more disturbing and stomach-churning aspects of serial killer antics. The writing is callous and savage, often with a coldly descriptive nature accompanying it.
There are many damn fine qualities to this novel. It’s gutsy and bold, with a thumping pulse of bleak misery constantly pulling at those emotive heartstrings. But, as is Brite’s way, the tale does flitter around with touches of an annoying ‘goth’ nature, flinging the tale’s principal characters into the usual self-loathing boredom that we’ve come to associate Brite’s work with. It’s a case of roll your eyes, take a deep breath, and then get your head down whilst you churn your way through more sad and loathsome emotionally susceptible characters, pumping out more yawn-inducing dross. Thankfully, the occurrence of such ‘goth’ drivel is far far less than with other Brite novels, and its inclusion doesn’t really detract too greatly from an otherwise extremely engaging and challenging tale.
The novel runs for a total of 240 pages.
© DLS Reviews